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25 Things You Should Know About Phoenix

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Just like the mythical bird that rose from the ashes, the city of Phoenix flourished in the ruins of a prehistoric civilization. Learn more about the history of the Valley of the Sun.

1.
Its residents are called Phoenicians.

2. With a population of more than 1.5 million people, Phoenix is the most populous capital city in the United States.

3. Phoenix has more days annually where the temperature exceeds 100°F than any other major U.S. city; from 1981-2010 the city averaged 107 days over 100 degrees a year.

4. The city is home to the U.S.’s only known feral population of rosy-faced lovebirds. Native to South Africa and popularly kept as pets, the wild birds were first spotted in the area in 1987. The population in Phoenix, which as of 2010 has grown to about 950 birds, is thought to have stemmed from an escaped or released pair.

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5. 
In 1952, the very first McDonald’s franchise was sold to Phoenix entrepreneur Neil Fox by the McDonald brothers, two years before they ever met Ray Kroc. The building, which was demolished in the 1960s but stood at the corner of Indian School Road and Central Avenue, was also the first to sport the iconic Golden Arches.

6. Phoenix’s South Mountain Park is one of the nation’s largest city parks [PDF]. At over 16,000 acres, it’s nearly 20 times larger than Central Park in New York City.

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7. 
South Mountain Park also has one of the highest-ever reported density of chuckwallas. The iguana-like lizards thrive in the park, at an average of 65 per hectare.

8. Located in the foothills of South Mountain Park, the 18-room Mystery Castle was built by Boyce Luther Gully in the 1930s for his daughter, Mary Lou. Fond of building sandcastles on the beaches with her dad in Seattle, Mary Lou asked him to build her a castle that the ocean wouldn’t wash away. After learning he had tuberculosis, Boyce relocated to the drier climes of Phoenix, hoping the move would cure him. The sprawling castle was constructed from stone and adobe as well as salvaged car parts, telephone poles, and railroad tracks from an old mine, among other unusual materials, and the mortar is said to be mixed with calcium and goat milk. The castle, which is open to the public, contains a cantina, a dungeon, and a chapel.

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain


9. 
In the 1950s and ‘60s, Phoenix was home to an exceptional number of structures built in the Jetsons-esque Googie style of architecture. Not many of the glass facades and boomerang-shaped roofs still stand, but two surviving Googie examples can still be observed in the City Center Hotel on West Van Buren Street, the rotundas flanking the Phoenix Financial Center on North Central Avenue, and a bowling alley. 

10. Speaking of architecture, Phoenix was Frank Lloyd Wright's home and architectural canvas from the late 1920s until his death in 1959. Projects of his in Phoenix include Taliesin West, the First Christian Church, and the David and Gladys Wright House (built for Wright’s son and his wife).

Taliesin West, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0


11. 
Speaking of Wright: With the exception of Barack Obama, every American president since Herbert Hoover was in office has slept in the Arizona Biltmore Hotel in Phoenix, for which Frank Lloyd Wright was the consulting architect—and which borrowed heavily from his architectural style.

12. The iconic copper-domed Arizona State Capitol building in Phoenix no longer actually houses any branches of the state’s government. As the state grew, the branches relocated to nearby buildings; the original 1901 portion of the capitol building is now the Arizona Capitol Museum.

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13. 
You might know that an anchor from the USS Arizona is displayed at the Pearl Harbor memorial in Hawaii, at the site where the ship sank in 1941. But the ship’s other anchor is in Phoenix, displayed at Wesley Bolin Memorial Plaza directly in front of the state capitol, along with a mast and gun also salvaged from the battleship. 

14. The greatest snowfall recorded in Phoenix measured exactly 1 inch, although it happened twice—1 inch fell in 1933, and another in 1937.

15. On March 13, 1997, thousands of Phoenix-area residents, including the state’s governor, reported seeing an “otherworldly” V-shaped aircraft in the sky, which contained five lights and hovered silently for over an hour. This incident was subsequently known as “Lights Over Phoenix,” and despite being debunked in 1998 articles in Tucson Weekly and Phoenix New Times, is generally described as a UFO sighting.

16. Legend has it that the chimichanga was invented in Phoenix, at Macayo’s Mexican Kitchen in the 1950s. (To be fair, a restaurant in Tucson has also made this claim; the debate is ongoing.)

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17. 
The Miranda warning, also known as the Miranda rights, stems from the 1966 case of Miranda v. Arizona, wherein Ernesto Arturo Miranda’s kidnapping, rape, and armed robbery charges were overturned based on Phoenix police officers’ failure to inform him that he had the right to remain silent during his interrogation.

18. Phoenix got its name from Darrell Duppa, a pioneer who saw the prehistoric ruins of the native Hohokam people and predicted that another civilization would rise from them, like the mythical bird of lore. 

19. These ruins included prehistoric irrigation canals. The Hohokam tribe settled the land where Phoenix now stands beginning in 1 CE, eventually building a complex canal system that irrigated crops and enabled their agrarian society to flourish in the desert. The Hohokam people disappeared sometime around 1450, and no one knows why. 

Former Hohokam canal, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0


20. 
Other proposed names for the city were Stonewall, after Stonewall Jackson, and Salina, an early name for the Salt River, which flows through Phoenix.

21. The name of the Suns, Phoenix’s pro basketball franchise, was chosen from 28,000 entries submitted by fans during a naming contest in 1968. The winner, Selinda King, received $1000 for her suggestion as well as season tickets.

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22. 
Better known as MIM, the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix houses almost 16,000 instruments from approximately 200 different countries, including but not limited to the theremin, bouzouki, psalmodikons, and qanun.

23. In the Biltmore/Camelback area off of the Arizona Canal Trail, the Phoenix Bat Cave (actually a Maricopa County flood control tunnel) is the daytime hangout of thousands of Mexican free-tailed and western pipistrelle bats, who put on a nightly show between June and October. They gradually begin to leave the tunnel when the sun sets, feasting on insects in the sky, and the bat-cloud is generally in full swing by dusk.

24. Phoenix was the birthplace of Scientology. L. Ron Hubbard lived there in 1952 when he organized the Hubbard Association of Scientologists from his Camelback Mountain home, which has been restored and turned into a museum.

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25. 
The Release the Fear sculpture in downtown Phoenix, comprised partly from melted-down revolver chambers, was constructed by artist Robert John Miley in 2005 as a symbol of anti-violence and gun control in the U.S. The 24-foot statue, a human figure with its arms raised to the sky, rises from a pile of rifles, knives, and various other weapons, which are fused to its base. Miley spent 10 years searching for sponsors and source for building materials.

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Neighborhoods
How 8 Phoenix Neighborhoods Got Their Names
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Inhabited by native people for thousands of years and colonized by white settlers in the 1860s, Phoenix has developed a booming economy based around “the Five Cs”: cotton, citrus, cattle, climate, and copper. It's grown from a once-dusty desert town to the state capital, as well as the nation's fifth-largest city, with a population of 1.6 million and counting. Here’s the story of how eight of the city's neighborhoods ended up with their current names.

1. ALHAMBRA

Best known as the founder of Glendale, Arizona, William John Murphy was a pioneer, contractor, and the impresario of the Arizona Improvement Company, created in 1887 to sell land and water rights south of the Arizona Canal. Murphy also greatly contributed to the early development of Scottsdale and Phoenix, and he was responsible for splitting a large chunk of his land along the western border of Phoenix, next to Glendale, into smaller subdivisions [PDF]. He also came up with the subdivision's names; Alhambra stemmed from the 13th-century palace and fortress of the same name in Granada, Spain. Today, the neighborhood is known for large homes and its Murphy Bridle Path, named after its former landowner.

2. AHWATUKEE

The word Ahwatukee—an “urban village” in the East Valley region of Phoenix—has roots in the Crow language, but theories about its translation differ. Before it was a village, the name referred to a single estate built in 1920 that sat at the modern-day streets of Sequoia Trails and Appaloosa Drive. The original builder, William Ames, first named it Casa de Sueños ("house of dreams"), but he died three months after moving in. His widow, Virginia Ames, owned the house until her death in 1932, and it was eventually sold to a rich Midwesterner named Helen Brinton, who had an interest in the Crow tribe. Her attempt to translate “house of dreams” into Crow was Ahwatukee, but the tribe says there’s no such word in their language. The name caught on regardless, being used to refer to the house as well as the area that developed around it.

3. SUNNYSLOPE

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the Southwest was a place where sick people would travel from all across the U.S. to recuperate from pulmonary illnesses—especially pulmonary tuberculosis. The hot, arid climate was thought to dry out one's lungs, while the year-round sunshine was believed to have healing properties in general. In the early 20th century, Sunnyslope—and Sunnyslope Mountain, marked by a 150-foot-tall white S near its peak—became known as an area where ill people could get well. California architect William Norton built a subdivision in the area in 1911, and it was his daughter who came up with the name Sunnyslope after admiring the sun glinting off the slope of the mountain.

4. F. Q. STORY HISTORIC DISTRICT

The F.Q. Story district is named after Francis Quarles Story, who purchased the land it’s on back in 1887. Formerly a wool merchant, Story moved to Los Angeles County for health reasons and became a citrus farmer before investing in land in Arizona’s Salt River Valley and promoting agricultural development there. He never lived in Phoenix, but he did have a hand in the development of its major thoroughfare, Grand Avenue, as well as its subsequent streetcar line. The F.Q. Story neighborhood was built as a “streetcar suburb,” with newspaper ads in 1920 calling the grand opening "one of the big real estate events of the season." (Unfortunately, a flood at nearby Cave Creek caused a temporary halt in construction the following year, but the area rebounded after a dam was constructed in 1923.)

5. WILLO

Willo started out as a planned community, an idyllic suburb on the outskirts of Phoenix, although today it lies near downtown. A man named J. P. Holcomb acquired the southern part of the neighborhood in 1878 and then the northern part in 1886, using the land mostly for farming for the next 20 years. In the early 1900s, several homes were built on long, narrow lots, and 41 more were added in the '20s, but the area was still isolated from the city and it was difficult to attract buyers. Developers decided it needed a snappy name, and came up with Willonot from the willow tree, but from combining the two nearest voting districts: Wilshire and Los Olivos.

6. LAVEEN

As early as 1884, Mexican and Mormon settlers were living in what’s now called Laveen Village, in the Southwestern part of Phoenix. The school district was called the Harovitz District, but the community itself had no name for more than 30 years, until Roger Laveen was appointed as its first postmaster in 1913 [PDF]. The post office was located in the back of Laveen’s brother's new general store, which became a cornerstone of the town. Roger only worked in the post office for about two years, although both brothers continued living in the area that now bears their name for decades more.

7. MEDLOCK PLACE

Medlock Place was named after prominent residential developer Floyd W. Medlock, who created the community in 1926 with the idea of giving it a rural aesthetic despite being only a few miles from downtown Phoenix. The precocious Medlock—he was only in his early 20s—planned palm tree-lined roads in the new community and sold pre-built houses, a ground-breaking move in 1920s Phoenix. (In an ad, Medlock called his community "the Subdivision Extraordinary.") For his subsequent South Medlock Place addition, he began selling vacant lots instead, with buyers permitted to hire their own builders.

8. ARCADIA

Located at the foot of Camelback Mountain and one of the wealthiest areas of Phoenix, Arcadia started out like a lot of the city’s neighborhoods: as citrus orchards. The first grove was planted in 1899, and by 1920, the foothills were covered in citrus trees—thanks in large part to the Arcadia Water Company, which set up a widespread irrigation system starting in 1919. Soon, farmers and developers began investing in the region and building homes. The neighborhood took its name from the water company, which in turn got its name from Greek mythology: Arcadia was where Pan, the goat god, originated—a region supposedly named for its king, Arcas, the hunter. The association with nature is still apt, since fruit trees abound in the neighborhood even today.

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Big Questions
Why is New York City Called The Big Apple?
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New York City has been called many things—“The Great American Melting Pot,” “Gotham,” “The City that Never Sleeps”—but its most famous nickname is “The Big Apple.” So just where did this now-ubiquitous moniker originate?

MAKING A BIG APPLE

Over the years, there have been many theories about how New York City came to be called “The Big Apple.” Some say it comes from the former well-to-do families who sold apples on the city's streets to make ends meet during the Great Depression. Another account posits that the term comes from a famous 19th-century brothel madam named Eve, whose girls were cheekily referred to as her “Big Apples.” But the nickname actually springs from a catchphrase used in the 1920s by The Morning Telegraph sports writer John J. Fitz Gerald in his horse racing column, “Around the Big Apple.” Beginning on February 18, 1924, he began every column with the header, “The Big Apple. The dream of every lad that ever threw a leg over a thoroughbred and the goal of all horsemen. There's only one Big Apple. That's New York.”

At the time, the jockeys and trainers of smaller horses were said to want to make a “Big Apple," which was their term for the big money prizes at larger races in and around New York City.

Fitz Gerald reportedly first heard "The Big Apple" used to describe New York's racetracks by two African American stable hands at the famed New Orleans Fair Grounds, as he explained in his inaugural "Around the Big Apple" column: “Two dusky stable hands were leading a pair of thoroughbreds around the ‘cooling rings’ of adjoining stables at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans and engaging in desultory conversation. ‘Where y'all goin' from here?’ queried one. ‘From here we're headin' for The Big Apple,’ proudly replied the other. ‘Well, you'd better fatten up them skinners or all you'll get from the apple will be the core,’ was the quick rejoinder.” Fitz Gerald nabbed the colloquialism for his column, where it quickly took off.

CATCHING ON

Once the term entered the vocabularies of society up north, its popularity slowly spread outside of the horseracing context, and everything from nightclubs in Harlem to hit songs and dances about the city were named after “The Big Apple.” Most notably, New York jazz musicians in the 1930s—who had a habit of using the nickname to reference their hometown in their songs—helped the nickname spread beyond the northeast.

Throughout the mid-20th century, it remained New York City's nickname until it was officially adopted by the city in the 1970s. The New York Convention & Visitors Bureau hoped that using the moniker would brighten the image of an economically downtrodden and crime-ridden city in decline and revive the tourist economy. In 1997, to give Fitz Gerald his (somewhat unjust) due, then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani signed legislation naming the corner where Fitz Gerald and his family lived at West 54th Street and Broadway between 1934 and 1963 “Big Apple Corner.”

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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